Why I Press Seams Open

It’s been decided. For a crisp quilt, we need to press our seams. But should you press quilt seams open or to the side? It’s an age-old quilting question whose only honest answer is: it depends. If you’ve made any of my patterns, you’ll know that I like to press seams opens. This was a tough-love decision I made after several of my early quilt endeavors. But is it right for you? Let’s delve into why some people choose to press seams to the side, and why I press my seams open.


Why some quilters press seams to the side.

First off, let’s talk about what pressing seams to the side means. Pressing seams to the side means that you press both pieces of the seam allowance flat against one side of the seam with an iron.


Pressing seams open: to the side


This keeps the back of your quilt top flat and your seams crisp. Sounds simple enough, but why do people choose to do it this way?


Pressing to the side is fast

Are you a procrastinator looking to knock a baby blanket out on time for a baby shower on Saturday? Look no further. Two quick steps will have you zooming through your pressing and on to your next piecing step.


First, you need to set your seam. This means you press your piecing before you open it, while the right sides are still together. This helps the thread mold into the fabric so you can get a nicer seam.


Pressing seams open: setting


Second, you open your piecing and press the seam allowance flat to the right or left side of the seam (the pattern will usually tell you which direction to use). Mere seconds and barely a thought later and you’ve instantly elevated the look of your quilt. Seems worth it to me!


Pressing seams open: to the side


Pressing to the side lets you nest seams

Pressing to the side also presents a useful tool when you’re trying to match perpendicular seams. Lining up perpendicular seams and creating perfect points is a very difficult and frustrating part of being a beginner quilter (and even later on!). But pressing your seams to the side allows you to use a technique called ‘nesting’ to help you get your points to


Nesting your seams is easy. When you pressed your seams to the side, a little shelf was created. This ‘shelf’ was made because one side of the seam has only one layer of fabric and the other side has 3 lays. Then, as you line up for pieces to sew together, you can nest or tug these seams together to make a tight fit where the seams will come together.


pressing seams to the side shelf
The shelf created pressing seams to the side
Nesting Seams
Nested seams

It may take a little practice, because the sewing machine can cause issues if you’re not careful. But pretty soon, you’ll be getting perfect points every time!


But pressing to the side isn’t all great

As I’ve mentioned, pressing to the side creates a subtle shelf in your seam. This is neither super noticeable nor inherently bad, but it’s there. It has a subtle effect on your quilt that can add a different flow to your pattern. You can use this to your advantage to highlight a repetitive pattern. But, if you’re not careful with the direction you’re pressing, it could give your quilt a disjointed look. For example, if you press all the seams to the right, but one to the left, it could throw off the look of the quilt.


This shelf also creates problems with bulk. Remember how I mentioned nesting your seams above? Well, let’s pretend you’re making a 4 patch (4 square of the same size sewn together into a larger square). You first sew two pieces of 2 squares and press each to the side. This creates 3 layers of fabric: the quilt top and 2 seam allowances. You then can sew those together using nesting to get a perfect point, but then you press to the side again. This creates a sport in your quilt with 7 layers of fabric! Seven!


7 Seams


These seven layers of fabric create a speed bump you’ll have to quilt over. If you go slow, it’s not a big deal, but there are times where more pieces come to the intersection. This means there will be more and more layers of fabric that come together to give you a difficult, if not impossible time quilting.


Why I press seams open

Going back to the basics, pressing seams open means that you are spreading the seam allowances apart before you press so that there is one layer of seam allowance on each side of the seam. But why have I chosen to do this over pressing seams to the side?


Pressing open makes even seams.

Like I mentioned above, pressing to the side creates an uneven balance in fabric so that one side of the seam will have three layers of fabric and the other will have 1 layer. But pressing seams open will mean there is 2 layers of fabric on each side. This removes the ‘shelf’ look that seams pressed to the side have and makes a more even look across the quilt. This isn’t a big issue, but it does have a small effect on the look of your quilt.


Pressing seams, nesting


Pressing open distributes bulk

The biggest reason I press my seams open is bulk distribution. I make some pretty detailed designs. Often times 4, 5, 6, or even more fabrics all come together at one point. Pressing seams open evenly distributes the fabric across seams. This thins the bulk of fabric over as much area as possible. Sure, this still leaves speed bumps in the fabric, but it prevents them from getting too big that you break a needle trying to get through them.


Pressing seams: the intersection


The downsides to pressing open

If you haven’t guessed it yet, it takes a lot longer to press seams open than simply to the side. You have to spend all the time physically spreading the seams apart and then trying to keep them open as you press. As if that wasn’t bad enough, pressing open also makes your seam more vulnerable.


You see, when you press open, both sides of the fabric are being tugged away from the seam. Then your thread is exposed all the way down to the batting. If you like to stitch in the ditch, this, theoretically, means that you are only quilting your thread. Could these issues leave to longevity problems with your quilt? Possibly. But nobody is perfect enough to be solely quilting through the threads. If you’re worried, it could mean you just need to learn another type of quilting like straight line quilting or free motion!


What should you choose?

If you’re doing any pressing, you’re doing it right! First and foremost, always follow the pressing instruction in your pattern. Other than that, the biggest factor you should consider about pressing open or to the side is bulk in the seams. If you’re going a quilt where 5 or more seams are coming together at one point, I’d recommend you consider pressing open. If you’re making a bunch of perpendicular seams, pressing to the side can help get you really nice points. Try out both and see which you prefer!

Sew on!

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